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Another cleanup at Petty's Island readies a natural gem for New Jersey ownership

Under a pact reached in 2009, then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez agreed to donate Petty's Island to open it as a nature preserve with public access. The New Jersey Lands Trust has been given a conservation easement and will receive complete ownership by 2022, once decontamination is complete.

Emma Wenzel (center), 11, picks up trash along the Petty Island shoreline in Pennsauken, N.J., on Saturday morning.
Emma Wenzel (center), 11, picks up trash along the Petty Island shoreline in Pennsauken, N.J., on Saturday morning.Read moreSYDNEY SCHAEFER / Staff Photographer

It was seven years ago when Robert Reinhard first stepped foot on Petty's Island, an oasis in the middle of the Delaware River, between Camden and Philadelphia, that, at the time, was littered with trash and dominated by 30 cylindrical oil-storage tanks.

Cleaning up the island – 300 acres of true land, not counting another 200 acres of tidal flats – was supposed to be a one-time punishment for Reinhard, who had acted up during a middle-school class trip. But almost a decade later, the now-20-year-old continues to cross the bumpy bridge onto the island twice a year with his parents and sister for biannual cleanups held along its shoreline.

"I just kept coming back," said Reinhard on Saturday morning while holding a black plastic bag and trash picker.

Like others, the Reinhard family is drawn by the mystique of a terrain filled with wildlife, but typically cut off from public access. That's because Venezuelan state-owned oil company Citgo, which owns the property previously used for fuel storage, is in the midst of remediating the island.

In the mid-2000s, Citgo aligned itself with environmentalist groups and was locked in a battle to stop developers and politicians from building up the property after bald eagles were discovered nesting there.

An agreement was finally reached in 2009: The company would donate the Pennsauken Township property to New Jersey to open it as a nature preserve with public access. The New Jersey Natural Lands Trust was given a conservation easement and will receive complete ownership of what an official from that agency once called "the closest thing to Central Park in South Jersey" by 2022, once decontamination is complete.

It's been a long transition, but four months ago, the last oil tank on the island was demolished. Trash cleanup, however, is an ongoing issue. Strong winds and tides constantly deposit bottles, aluminum wrappers, and paper across parts of the island.

"In the last nine years, we've probably taken maybe 20 30-cubic-foot dumpsters worth of trash out of the river system," said Jack McCrossin, Citgo's manager of health, safety, and security.

Volunteers walked into the forested area from the shoreline lugging trash and showing off unexpected treasures. A white hobby horse, long wooden fencing, and two tires were among the larger finds propped up against a tree. By the end of the three-hour event, more than a dozen garbage bags filled a huge dumpster.

Still, the scene volunteers confronted on Saturday was better than others, said Kelly Wenzel, project director of Urban Education and Outreach at New Jersey Audubon, which organizes programs on the island through a contract with the state.

Each cleanup usually yields about 110 gallons of trash, down from twice that amount in the early years, Wenzel said.

"The first area we cleaned up years ago, there was a lot of floatable garbage there. It was very trashed but it stays pretty clean now," she said. "We've taken tons of debris off the island."

Wenzel said Petty's Island, sandwiched between two urban centers, is home to an array of species, including snapping turtles, beavers, foxes, and more than 140 bird species. It was once owned by Lenape Native Americans, sold to Quaker Elizabeth Kinsey in 1678, and was possibly linked later on to the slave trade.

In May, shipping company Crowley Liner Services will stop operations on a portion of land it leases from Citgo and demolish its storage units. The company was supposed to pack up in 2017, but was sidetracked by work with FEMA after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.